Sarah Howe Prac Critical Thinking


The moon glimmers
in the brown channel.
Strands of mist
wrap the mountainsides
crowded with firs.

Declining cliffs
sink beneath vast water.
By remote paths,
twisting pines.

Far downstream
two sides
of a half-built bridge
fail to meet.
Our crude boat
points to Chongqing.
As someone I now forget
once said
journeying is hard.

My face greets
the evening breeze
I listen –
the dream of a place.

A cormorant dives
by trembling light.
From the white
eyelet of a star
the sound of ripples.


A fisherman
skirting shore
in his high-prowed skiff
crossing bamboo oars
comes up with a jolt –
nets catch not fish
but the wizened finger
of a submerged branch
for below
a sunken valley persists –

slick bare trunks
furred in wafting fronds
have water for sky,
ghost forest.
Roots rot deep in the hill
where buried rock
is still dry.

Windows film,
doors drift open
in the empty concrete
shells of houses
towns that once
held hundreds
of thousands
slowly filling with
what, what is it
they fill with?

Someone I now forget
once said
journeying is hard.
The moon glimmers
in the brown channel.

Yangtze is the concluding poem in Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, her TS Eliot prize-winning first collection published last May by Chatto. Tracing memory over recent experience, and vice versa, Howe gathers into Loop of Jade an extended and variegated commentary on her return visits to mainland China and Hong Kong, where she lived until she was just shy of eight years old. A Renaissance scholar at Harvard University, Howe often writes a dense, coruscating kind of poem, where language is the foregrounded loop, and adds its own richness to the richness of memoir and “deep” travelogue.

On other occasions, as in Yangtze, she seems to stand back and trust a cooler, simpler, descriptive mode. Is this a voice from the Chinese “side” of her literary inheritance? Perhaps, but it also recalls an American poet still setting an example for later generations, Elizabeth Bishop.

Yangtze’s structure sometimes recalls that of haiku. Haiku is not, of course, a Chinese form, but there were Chinese nutrients in the soil of its flowering. Yangtze is evocatively haiku-like in some of its procedures: the somewhat ad hoc approach to punctuation (which often disappears altogether, enhancing the symbiotic flow of imagery), the juxtapositions, the silences, the sense of the unsaid.

Grammatical connection may slip quietly away: in stanza two, for instance, “By remote paths, / twisting pines,” and in the pure “haiku moment” of stanza five: “From the white /eyelet of a star/ the sound of ripples.” The movement between associative or impressionistic writing and the denotative is one of the poem’s many pleasures. It imitates the mind in travelling mode – the way we might explain to ourselves (or check in the guidebook) the backstory of some new sight, or simply let impressions float over us.

The poem goes with the flow of the river while accommodating the physicality of the journey: “our crude boat / chugging / points towards Chonqing”. I admire its effortlessly aleatory quality, its natural pattern-making and avoidance of symmetry. Each stanza is the length it needs to be, the length of a span of attention that naturally varies as it reflects what is seen, thought, felt. The diction is precision-tooled, yet appears transparent as clean water. The rhythm is slow, but never too slow. An asterisk after stanza five marks a pause, but it’s the merest breathing space. When movement resumes, there’s some luminous narrative detail about the fisherman in his “high-prowed skiff”, and some some nice alliterative music, before a dreamlike descent into the underworld of “the sunken valley”.

Howe’s short, sometimes one-beat units in the penultimate stanza (“towns that once / held hundreds / of thousands”) seem to prepare for the ensuing self-interruption. The speaker is about to tell us what the shells of the abandoned houses “fill with” – when she finds she can’t. It’s a moment reminiscent of the concluding stanza of Bishop’s One Art, where the speaker has to force herself, publicly, to write down the dreaded phrase admitting that losing her lover feels “like disaster”. Howe’s missing word(s) may be too painful, or too elusive. Her question, urgent with repetition (“what, what is it they fill with?”) also corrects the tendency of poems, even with the most honourable intentions, to hasten towards emotive answers.

The Yangtze has suffered cataclysms of development, noted here by a journalist describing her cruise from Chongqing to the Three Gorges Dam. It’s been suggested that the erection of this vast hydroelectric plant is among the most significant alterations ever made to the natural world.

Poetry, music and identity with Sarah Howe, Emmy the Great and Solomon OB – books podcast

Unmistakeably elegiac, Howe’s poem notices effects rather than their cause. In addition to her eloquent local phenomena stands the symbolism of the unfinished bridge, indicating the bisection of tradition and progress, old and new technologies. The poem’s embedded refrain, “journeying is hard”, possibly from Li Po, (although many traveling poets have said the same) may be Howe’s reference to China’s costly march into modernity.

That process is haunted – and so is the process of the poem. The river is haunted by the “ghost forest” in in its depths. The water-haunted trees haunt their drought-stricken roots. The fisherman whose net catches “the wizened finger / of a submerged branch” may sense the possibility of a failing livelihood. And, of course, the poem’s last stanza is haunted, wonderfully, by what has been said and shown earlier, the – pretended? – failure to remember who said “journeying is hard” and the image of the glimmering moon and “the brown channel”. It’s as if the river’s course had been deflected from linearity to form yet another “loop of jade” in Howe’s lustrously layered treasury of poetic time.

Well, I think one will see the… seams [laughs] in a project like this, and it’s certainly a kind of monstrosity, an ungainly showing: it doesn’t have an ideal form it’s achieving. It partly evades that whole question, yet knows about that question. As I understand it, the etymology of ‘cento’ comes from patchwork and stitching – one could think about things more compositionally along the lines of people keeping commonplace books or working things up out of orts and scraps. There’s some element of that, possibly, in this book and in some other things I’ve done.

It’s also obviously a borderline sinister metaphor, about willfulness and adultered materials and corruption; there’s something to be said both for and against that too. And also about the ‘aversiveness’ some materials have when you’re dealing with them. I definitely always felt, when I was thinking a lot about Frankenstein in the ’90s that it puts enormous pressure on the category of the human through this monster. At any moment I felt it was a very accurate or ready-to-hand spiritual allegory for my life as a graduate student!

The novel’s so brilliant about structures of identification and it’s such a powerful enquiry into aesthetic ideology. It’s one of those multivalent things that can be endlessly re-read along gender lines, along technophobic/technophilic lines, Promethean overreaching. But I also couldn’t help but find it particularly relevant as an allegory about, in the most obvious sense, alienation; not only alienation as an individual, because part of the problem here is that the creature is denied fellowship, and so thus the need for a mate – his own forced turn to a request for another of his own kind.

That goes back to your question about life and whatever any individual singer might want to make of things, but also in community and the agora – I think Frankenstein’s very brilliant about that. When Victor realises what he’s done and that he’s going to be endlessly pursued by this botched thing, he talks about going back to Geneva, but he feels alienated in his own home and the gates of Geneva shut around him. I think that Mary Shelley is unbelievably brilliant about the coordination, as well as disjunctions, among the sensorium, the community, political structure. You get that in the way she has the Monster’s first killing be that of little William, the little child brother of Victor Frankenstein: the little William who screamed in horror at this monster, who says, ‘Let me go you monster, you ugly wretch, my papa is a Syndic.’ It’s like the babies have already got the state internalized.

There’s that version of things, which is a much more corporeal making or botching. Then there are other, musical metaphors, or oceanic metaphors, in the sense of immersing in a medium. And yet if one doesn’t surface from that medium, one could drown.

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